The sound of footsteps in an empty mall

The Irongate Plaza mall in Hibbing is down to three small retail shops and a restaurant. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

I like to walk. My “five miles or more per day” habit is about all that’s keeping me out of the Big and Tall stores these days. (And I ain’t getting any taller). Walking is probably the only good habit I’ve ever had.

So when I had an odd free moment the other day I thought I’d try walking at the Irongate Plaza in Hibbing. I had heard the mall walking there was good. And it was.

Too good. Beyond good. You could have staged a Civil War re-enactment in there. You could have played lacrosse. And believe me, the music was easy listening.

I can’t say that this mall is empty. After all, it still sports a fabric store, a nail salon, a Christian-themed nutritional supplement store and a Mexican restaurant. A human being could live a good life with just those four places, actually. Mind, body, spirit and homemade jumpers.

You’ll also find two office tenants, a nonprofit and the Hibbing V.A. clinic, which I’m betting keeps the lights on for the whole joint. Ninety percent of the human traffic visible during the day I visited were mall walkers. The youngest among them? That would be me, a shambling middle-aged man.

Now, the Irongate Mall hardly needs me to pile onto its long list of woes. I covered the reasons why rural malls have been failing in a Daily Yonder piece five years ago. The only thing that’s changed is that the J.C. Penney, Sears and all but the four other businesses have closed. But the Irongate is a good illustration of one of the specific problems.

Let’s review:

  • Box stores began supplanting malls in small cities 20 years ago due to lower prices and convenience.
  • As a result, rural malls became over-leveraged. Rents went up, traffic went down. Stores closed, nothing replaced them.
  • Shoppers now mostly buy things online. It’s easier, cheaper, and — so far — the economic tradeoffs haven’t seemed all that important to most.
  • As a result, now box stores are suffering too. Bloomberg reported late last year that we’re headed for a “retail apocalypse.” That certainly feels true in places like Hibbing. Smaller towns yet find themselves with a Dollar General and little else. The smallest towns have no retail footprint at all, except maybe a gas station.

The Mesabi Iron Range features a sort of Tale of Three Malls. You’ve got Hibbing in the middle, with its failing mall. Then to the east in Virginia the Thunderbird Mall — also suffering — is now engaged in a renaissance of sorts. It’s transitioning from a traditional mall to a new kind of retail space, more like a public square. Some indoor shopping, some outdoor.

In Grand Rapids, the Central Square Mall is chugging along with some consistency. They’re a quirky case because the mall is located in the city’s historic downtown, which is also a major state highway, across from the town’s largest employer. In fact, Grand Rapids becomes a sort of case study for alternative ways to lay out a city. Anyway, the Central Square Mall is able to act like an indoor downtown, and so it offers something unique.

The decline, transition and repurposing of three small Iron Range malls shows the challenges of a collapsing national retail economy in rural areas like ours. Indeed, the old order is thoroughly dead. We must now seek some new way forward when it comes to our local retail economy.

I think the difference between what’s happening in these three towns can be pinned to the actions of the private ownership. Virginia’s and Grand Rapids’s malls have owners who are trying something. Hibbing’s mall’s owners have done little more than tweaks.

Will the private sector lead the way, or sit there like a corpse as the townsfolk poke it with sticks? That’s not just true of retail, but the whole of our changing economy — from mining to health care. People can hold public officials and government actions to account through elections, but what about the owners of the mall?

Walking around the perimeter of the Irongate Mall brought back a lot of memories. The place was built around the time I was born, so this was where we went shopping. I remembered being with my mom and dad at the Kmart. Meeting my parents in front of the cafe when I was old enough to walk around on my own. I could picture the old lighted signs that used to adorn every store. All dark now.

The people aren’t gone. They’re in their houses. How will we get them to come out?

Until then, I’ll always have a quiet place to walk indoors.


Comments

  1. Heath C Burthwick says:

    We all were laughing when they put in the Centtral Square Mall in Grand Rapids. We said it should be more like Hibbing !
    Little did we know that both ideas would be poor concepts for the long haul.

  2. Karin Schultz says:

    At one point about two years ago, I counted 24 empty stores in the GR mall. There are so many cool ideas for the mall but costs to rent have to make sense too. I would prefer it if they would allow artist to at least utilize the empty spaces instead od leaving them empty!

  3. Gerald S says:

    Obviously, the population crash on the Range has been a major factor in all this too. The bigger trucks and more powerful and reliable power shovels the mines used to cut employment by geometric numbers while maintaining production levels cost the area a lot of families who would have been shopping at the malls.

    There was one more step in this progression, which took place before Aaron was born. Back in the era before about 1970, retail in these towns consisted of downtown stores, stretched along main street and a few side streets. In towns like these, there probably were small branches of Sears, Penney’s, Ward’s, and something like Herberger’s or the like, but most of the business was in multigenerational locally owned stores owned and run by families who lived a few blocks away. Mail order was a feature then too, with the Sears or Ward’s catalogue often delivering orders to the small stores in town to fill gaps in inventory of the smaller stores.

    The step to on-line retail is just one more step away from local business, part of a progression from locally owned clothing, hardware, and even food stores to chain stores at the mall to the big boxes to Amazon. This has clearly not been good for the smaller towns and cities, as it has hollowed out the economy. All but the last step was more neutral to larger towns, but UPS drivers aside, the switch to on-line is ending many jobs even in large metro areas. Large shopping centers like Southdale and Mall of America are having serious trouble too.

    With each step, the agents of change have been seen as villains, whether they were chain supermarkets, stores like Wal-Mart, or Amazon. But in each case the change has been driven by improved convenience and service and lower prices. People have always found that to trump the notion that jobs and local prosperity were leaving town.

    • Ranger47 says:

      Well stated Gerald. Brings back fond memories of friends and their parents who owned those Main Street stores. Nice to see the kids of today generating their own fond memories they’ll reflect back on someday.

  4. Arnie Dye says:

    Below is a post I made about the Irongate Mall about a year ago on this blog. Ironically it’s still true. While on vacation in the Iron Range over this last summer, I did a similar walk of the Irongate Mall, noting the same emptiness that Aaron talks about in this article. Malls like the Irongate are a dying breed, I’ve seen many small malls through out the entire U.S. slowing falling apart. I do believe that malls are very dependent on their location. For example, in addition to seeing Irongate this last summer, I went shopping at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth. Other than Mall of America, I’ve never saw a mall super busy…hundreds of people with cash in hand to spend. My wife and I were left with a favorable impression that the economy in Duluth must be super strong. Again for what’s it’s worth Irongate will always hold a special place in my heart.

    Post from last year…
    “While not having lived on the Iron Range for over 25 years, I still visit the area for vacations. As a grade school kid, I have a nostalgic paradigm of Iron Gate Mall. Needless to say the mall itself is a shell of its former glory and I do find that very sad. I remember when the mall had K-Mart (complete with internal café), a video rental store, a 3-screen theater (where I saw the Twilight Zone movie, Wargames, and years later while on a trip, Terminator 2!), and for me the jewel of the mall – a full up arcade (a place that was a self baby sitter for me and my brother while my parents shopped, I would argue that arcade was one the best I have ever seen). The last time I visited the Iron Gate was almost 2 years ago and I found myself remembering the mall’s glory days, if anything it’s a nice quite place for a walk while you gather your thoughts. I’m active duty military and I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world and while on my travels I have visited some of the largest and grandest shopping centers – Mall of America, Woodfield Mall in suburbs of Chicago (and was the largest mall in the world in the early 1980s), Aeon Mall in the Aomori Prefecture of Japan (Japanese malls are super cool, they take pop culture and shopping to a whole new level), and the largest mall in North America…the West Edmonton Mall (a place that makes even the great Mall of America seem average). But out of all these palaces of capitalism, the Iron Gate Mall will continue to be my favorite overall shopping location, sometimes less is more. That’s my two-cents on the fallen status of the Iron Gate Mall.”

  5. Irongate opened just in time for the apocalypse of the early 80’s in Hibbing. It was doomed from the start, but definitely had its brief shining moment.

    You forgot a fourth mall, the Mesaba mall. It was just as grand as Irongate when it opened in about 1970. It also went through its downturn with the loss of Red Owl and Woolworths and the early 80’s, but managed a repurposing of sorts. Super One and L&M are two anchors that aren’t really, and the mall itself has largely given over to medical related businesses.

  6. I think that we haven’t been innovative enough to save these places. Yeah, retail nostalgia is something I hold near and dear, but I also think that there are other updates for these gigantic empty structures that no one has really given extra thought. If Hibbing would invest in making these buildings more appealing, more attractive, maybe we could get some real life out of them yet. A botanical garden, invest in getting the building on solar power so that electric is cheaper, encourage more tech companies and retailers of the future to use the space. I think Hibbing is missing out on a lot, and every time I see that mall, that’s what I feel. I feel like we are trailing the pack when it comes to growth.

    • Great ideas Angie, tell us more.

      What’s your thoughts on how much the botanical garden might cost and who would pay to install and maintain it?

      My daughter installed a solar system on her house two years ago at a cost of about $40,000. That was reduced to about $25,000 through Minnesota solar incentive program subsidies (meaning you and I helped pay for it…she smiles at that). It’s going to take about 15 years to have it pay off, so not a great financial investment. Too many short, cloudy days on the Range for 8 months out of the year. Question is: How much do you think installing solar on the Mall would cost and who would pay for and maintain it?

      Your third idea, “encourage more tech companies and retailers of the future to use the space” would be the home run. Give us 3-4 thoughts on how we might “encourage” those new or existing small, family businesses owners to take a chance on spending their hard earned money to set up shop in the Mall.

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